LONDON — Reporters Without Borders, which advocates for press freedom, increased pressure on Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to release dozens of journalists currently detained in the country and to relax its heavy suppression of the news media and of dissenting voices.
A delegation from Reporters Without Borders met with Saudi officials this year, the organization said, in a visit that was spurred by widespread outrage about the killing of the Saudi dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi.
The main objective of the trip was to urge the Saudi government to free the 30 journalists, but the kingdom’s dismal ranking in the organization’s annual press freedom index also became a focus of conversation, according to Christophe Deloire, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, who was part of the delegation. Saudi Arabia was ranked 172nd out of 180 countries on the group’s annual list for 2019.
“They took time to hear what we had to say, and to explain why the country is 172 in the press freedom index,” Mr. Deloire said. “It’s the first time they were so badly ranked, and they were of course not satisfied with that.”
But little action has been taken in the weeks since — the possibility of pardons for the detained journalists during the Ramadan period had been discussed but not acted on — so information about the visit was released this week to add further pressure on Saudi Arabia, the group said.
Reporters Without Borders was among many international organizations to demand accountability for the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, who lived in the United States and who wrote a column for The Washington Post. Mr. Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, and the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has been suspected of ordering his death.
Last month, the United Nations released a report that concluded that Saudi officials had carried out an extensive cover-up of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing that could not have taken place without the consent of Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto leader.
Saudi officials have denied that the crown prince had any involvement.
The author of the report, Agnès Callamard, called for an international investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s death and criticized the United Nations for its paralysis over the case.
Mr. Deloire of Reporters Without Borders said, “The murder of Jamal Khashoggi caused extensive damage to Saudi Arabia’s international image, marking a real low point for a country that has one of the world’s worst press freedom records.”
He added that “serious measures,” such as releasing jailed journalists, would be needed to begin to repair the kingdom’s reputation.
For three days in April, four representatives from Reporters Without Borders met with several Saudi officials including the foreign minister, justice minister, public prosecutor and media minister. Mr. Deloire said that engaging directly with the Saudi government was a “necessary step.”
A Group of 20 summit will take place in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, next year, and Reporters Without Borders said it was important that the country addressed its rights record before hosting the global event.
“When you take international responsibilities, you cannot be in a situation where you have so many journalists in jail, and what happened last year,” Mr. Deloire said.
He added that rather than engaging in extensive public relations campaigns to improve its image, Saudi Arabia simply needed to take action.
“We succeeded in opening a channel and will continue to press the need for the release of the 30 jailed journalists as the only way forward after Khashoggi’s assassination,” Mr. Deloire said.
Follow Megan Specia on Twitter: @meganspecia.
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